The Heroic Sonny Rollins
by Bob McMurray
I’ve had the great good-fortune of seeing jazz giant Sonny Rollins three times over the last few years and have even chatted with him on-line. My first time, in Detroit, although a good show, had inconsistencies and seemed to lack some of the greatness that is attributed to Sonny. The second time, here in Chicago, was completely different as Sonny had entire sections of the audience jumping out of their seats (including myself) in response to his prodigious solos. Even his band didn’t seem able to cope as Sonny soared higher and higher. Last month, in Chicago, the concert was completely different yet one more time. It was much more conversational in tone as Sonny spoke to us, through his playing, about his personal relationships with other legendary jazz people.
Why were these experiences so completely different? Some of the themes of Eric Nisenson’s recently published biography of Sonny Rollins, entitled ‘Open Sky’, helped me better understand why there are such differences in Sonny Rollins performances and why it may not be so unusual.
Sonny believes that “jazz is a living art” and as such he continually seeks to expand on his musical vision and sound. Historical reverence and command of repertory is only a part of jazz. The more important element is what is happening in the moment. This is especially true of live performance. Live performance is the true jazz experience for Sonny as Nisenson comments in his book, “As audience, we are his partners in creation, as necessary for his musical calculus as his horn or his breath.”
During a live show when Sonny remembers jazz greats from the past he does so from a unique perspective. He plays the “old” songs like someone who was in the room when they were written. Like someone who knew the heart breaker and the broken hearted. Whether it be Duke Ellington and ‘In My Solitude’, or Thelonious Monk and ‘Reflections’ he plays them with a visceral poetry not just as black dots and lines on a page. His composition, ‘Charles M.’ off of the recently released ‘This is What I Do’, tells a story of Charles Mingus that Sonny feels hasn’t been said enough about his old friend. It is metaphorical even for all of the real people that crafted jazz as a part of their everyday lives. Lives that knew the heroism of creation and effort and devotion to their art even when it wasn’t so easy for them. In Sonny’s verbal introduction to the piece on stage he says about Mingus, “He tried to do his best out here. That’s how we should remember these people.”
Sonny’s forceful directing of his energies to the present keys him to play without relying on his past accomplishments. This includes never bringing cliches or practiced licks to an improvisation. A hallmark of his playing is his long, unaccompanied soloing that, as Nisenson says, “is truly improvising without a net, and it is often the ultimate expression of Rollins’ genius.” Sonny himself understands the inherent risk this brings to his playing and performing. “I can never tell beforehand if I am going to be hot that night…There is really no way that I know what’s going to happen on any night.” This risk extends into the recording studio as well. Another fertile area Rollins uses quite often to express his musical imagination is a song’s coda. I get the feeling Sonny hates to give up on a song! He loves that time at the end where he can take the nearly completed song and use its framework as a starting point for a whole new inspiration. Time and again, such as on ‘East of the Sun’, I have seen him be most comfortable after the other band members, Stephen Scott (p), Clifton Anderson (tmb), Bob Cranshaw (b), and Perry Wilson (d), have had their say. The final opportunity for musical alchemy belongs to Sonny.
Additionally, a central mission to Sonny’s career and counseling of others is concentration on a personal sound. Sonny’s leadership in the jazz world with regard to defining a personal sound is evidenced in his famous sabbaticals from performing including his famous period of practicing from the Williamsburg Bridge in New York.
This “sound crusade” helps explain Sonny’s behavior over the years in clubs and on stage. He uses the stage, club, or venue to find a different sound by moving about during his playing. I’ve read stories of Sonny starting his set from inside the taxi cab as it pulls up to the club, or, Sonny playing from within the audience or behind the stage in the kitchen. The first time I saw him in Chicago I prepared myself to catch him, from my seat in the 2nd row, as it appeared he might have lost his way. This isn’t out of the question as Sonny has broken his ankle falling off of a stage – although he continued playing his solo while lying on the floor. I love to watch Sonny move about during a solo. During Irving Berlin’s ‘They Say That Falling in Love Is Wonderful’, at the recent concert in Chicago, I sensed that Sonny didn’t have the feel he was looking for to relate his musical concept for the tune. It wasn’t happening for him in the middle of the stage with his horn belt high. His groove was much better after he’d moved down to stage front left and had his horn knee high! From this position precariously close to the edge of the stage he apparently found the right tone or pitch or energy or whatever as he brought the solo up and out over the audience and brought it back to a resounding close.
Sonny Rollins’ great belief and commitment to his own sound and personal growth have seen him journey from the early days of bop through to hard bop of the late 50s, the free jazz era of the 60s and 70s, and now to exploring a new and ever-changing personal sound profile. It’s a sound that Sonny Rollins offers to his audience every time he plays – without compromise and without a net.
‘Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation’
Copyright © 2000 by Eric Nisenson, St. Martin’s Press New York
Chat Transcript, Talk City
Sonny Rollins, June 1999
Mark McMurray, March 2001